After three years and three attempts, the Coalition Government succeeded in taking away the civil rights of a million workers by passing the ABCC bill.
It wasn’t easy for them. In order to build support for these laws – widely condemned and criticised by human rights organisations, lawyers, journalists and the International Labour Organisation – the Coalition was required to ramp up a campaign of lies and misinformation and conduct a heavily promoted Royal Commission that cost taxpayers almost $80 million.
All of these endeavours (including the secret sealed report of the Royal Commission) failed to convince cross bench senators of the need for the ABCC – despite the Coalition calling a double dissolution that resulted in the unseating of many of those non-compliant senators.
Why was the Coalition Government so hell bent on passing these laws? Why did they spend three years painting a picture of an industry rife with criminality and thuggery that is at odds with reality and has been disabused by police and when they knew perfectly well that the ABCC has nothing to do with tackling crime? Why did they continually make false claims about productivity gains and reducing the cost of building schools and hospitals if the ABCC was reinstated?
To answer honestly, you have to look at who benefits from laws that treat construction workers like second-class citizens and take away rights that have been the cornerstone of industrial democracy in Australia for over 150 years.
These laws not only take away rights, they endanger safety and conditions for ordinary workers in the industry and take away important protections. We know this because we’ve been here before and that’s what happened.
The reality of the ABCC is that it:
- removes the right to silence for construction workers
- destroys job security as it bans workers, unions and employers agreeing to limit casualisation
- restricts workers, unions and employers from promoting the employment of apprentices
- bans unions and employers from agreeing to safe hours of work or any limitation at all on excessive overtime
- prohibits employees seeking the assistance of their union on safety issues
- imposes draconian financial penalties on workers of up to $36,000 for contraventions, including if they stop work because of a safety concern that is later found to be sufficiently serious.
Despite the moaning from conservative commentators, most of the amendments that are supposed to be favourable to workers will have little effect. Chief among them is the Security of Payments section. Having made a lot of noise on this issue, Senator Nick Xenophon settled for a committee, rather than insisting on concrete measures to protect sub-contractors and workers from predatory behaviour by head contractors. The government and the Master Builders Association (MBA) will continue to try and bury any meaningful reform in this area.
The much discussed two-year moratorium on the Code for existing EBAs was not the position of the CFMEU, but a deal offered to Malcolm Turnbull by Senator Derryn Hinch and promoted by the Australian Industry Group. Again, the commentary by some columnists on this issue was completely off the mark.
The reality is that many contractors were horrified by the MBA’s support for the retrospective application of the Code. The MBA put the interests of the Liberal Party ahead of their members, which has resulted in a huge backlash among MBA members.
The one positive to come out of the negotiations was the amendment on temporary work visas moved by Senator Doug Cameron and reluctantly accepted by the government. It goes well beyond the Immigration Act and, if enforced, will result in more job opportunities for Australian citizens and residents.
It’s easy to see that those who win from the ABCC are the property developers and big multinationals. They will pocket even bigger profits at the expense of the health and well-being of working people.
In every state and federal jurisdiction, the developers have been major financial supporters of the Liberal Party. Their donations to the party are often shrouded in secrecy, deliberately channelled through the labyrinth of the hodgepodge of laws and regimes throughout the Commonwealth that purport to govern donations.
There are a number of instances in WA, Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales where major donors to the Liberal Party have been the direct beneficiaries of government decision making. It’s hard to see the zealotry displayed by the Coalition Government in passing the ABCC as anything other than payback to the rich developers who have donated handsomely to the Liberal Party.
It is important for all of us to give consideration to these issues and to ask ourselves if we are content to allow a government to diminish the quality of life of so many people simply to curry favour with their property developer donors.
The CFMEU fought very hard to stop these laws. It fought hard to secure protections for workers that are enshrined in international conventions to which Australia is a signatory. It fought hard to fend off attacks on the civil liberties of the people who build our cities, towns and infrastructure. It fought hard to defend the rights of working people to job security, decent hours of work and safe conditions.
And the CFMEU is not going to stop.
It will continue to fight for an end to bad and discriminatory laws that fail to address the real issues in the industry, but instead favour the interests of big property developers and multinational companies.
All over the world, people are witnessing a decline in their standard of living. There are regular media reports on the lack of work-life balance, the effects of working more hours for less pay, the rising stress associated with a lack of job security – all caused by the pursuit of unfettered profits.
John Falzon, the CEO of St Vincent de Paul said in a recent article, that inequality is not ‘an accident or an economic inevitability. It’s a political choice.’
The ABCC is one such political choice.
However, for as long as there are unions like the CFMEU, they will not give up fighting for the fair go and the right for working people to live with dignity and decency.